Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last month, Chinese LeEco introduced three smartphones that rely on USB Type-C and Bluetooth for audio output. There is no 3.5 mm port on any of these devices.
LeEco first caught the eye of CCS Insight in early 2015 when the Chinese company announced plans to expand into the US with content and hardware (see Bold Expansion Plans from LeTV). Earlier in 2014, CCS Insight had predicted that producers of Asian content would begin pushing into Western markets, taking advantage of shifts in global demographics.
Last year we wrote about our expectations of and the resulting controversy about the rumoured removal of the audio jack from an upcoming iteration of the iPhone (see A 3.5 mm Controversy). We noted this wouldn't be Apple's first 3.5-related outcry; in 1998 Apple launched the iMac G3, an all-in-one desktop PC without a 3.5-inch diskette drive. The lack of a 1.4MB diskette reader seemed odd at the time, but the world quickly moved on.
That controversy now seems quaint, but we now face a new one. Can the world quickly move on from the venerable 3.5 mm audio jack? We might soon find out.
LeEco was initially called LeTV, an established Internet brand known for its media, television sets and smartphones, but also for its growing ambitions. For example, LeEco was the first smartphone maker to launch a Qualcomm 820-based device; the company's Le Max Pro was introduced at CES 2016 (see International CES 2016: Major Themes). LeEco has been referred to as the Netflix of China, but as it expands its footprint it's placing bets in multiple areas, like electric cars for example. The company recently opened its US headquarters in San Jose and seems poised to establish itself as a tech giant.
LeEco's new line of audio-portless phones gives the company a head start in offering a feature that consumers haven't asked for, at least not directly. There's an ecosystem built around the 3.5 mm port, but there are many reasons to move on.
As phones become thinner, the 3.5 mm audio jack has become a limiting factor for device designers. But beyond the physical dimensions, the audio jack is also an analogue port living in a digital world.
USB Type-C is now working its way through the system, and accessory makers will be quick to support the shift. Headphone manufacturers are introducing products using this feature, allowing them to grab power from the phone for noise cancellation and even expand the functionality of headsets beyond audio. For example, with the right sensors earbuds can collect fitness information from a wearer's ear, and relay the information back to the phone.
There's a clear trend here as more devices appear on the market devoid of the classic audio jack. It starts with LeEco, which earns extra credit for being first out of the gate, but this will be a mainstream non-feature in flagship smartphones during the coming year. It'll be another temporary uncomfortable adjustment for billions of consumers and, although a backlash is inevitable, it seems the path is set.